The signs lie.
Standing at the trailhead to Balcony House at Mesa Verde in Colorado, I thought I knew what I was getting into. When I bought tour tickets for family and friends the day before, the signs at the visitor’s center warned me about the 100 plus stairs I’d have to climb down and the rickety 32’ wooden ladder I’d have to scale—not to mention the assorted smaller ladders and uneven steps carved into the rock that I’d have to ascend.
It’s no secret that I’m not comfortable on ladders. Heights I can handle as long as I’m not somehow suspended in mid-air. Tall buildings? No problem. Ski lifts? No way. Zip lines? See ya.
Truth be told, I’m not fond of stairs either. I figure if modern people are supposed to climb more than a single flight of stairs at a time, God would not have allowed the invention of escalators and elevators.
Unfortunately, over the years I’ve also evolved into more of a sedentary cool, can I see it on Netflix? person than the gung ho let’s shoot our own documentary on site and live off rehydrated mac and cheese for a week person I used to be.
Some might say I’m lazy. I think of it as growing old enough to afford air conditioning and appreciate room service.
I knew going into it that this trip was supposed to be a throwback to the good old days when our two families camped and hiked together and made s’mores around the campfire with the kids—although this year we were staying in a hotel with indoor plumbing, hot water, and real beds and the only kids with us were our two seventeen year old caboose babies.
Everyone was jazzed. We’d traveled a long way to see the ruins of the Pueblo cliff dwellings on Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of the year that the tours opened. None of us had ever been here. And while the thought of hanging off a cliff and swinging in the breeze made my stomach queasy, there are some things you just have to suck up and do.
Like a good sport, I bought the tickets, swapped out my rubbah slippahs for tennis shoes and socks, and slathered on sunscreen.
The whole night before I psyched myself for the climb up the 32’ ladder. I had a plan—look straight ahead and keep climbing like a machine. Don’t stop. Don’t look down. Don’t look up. Just do it.
I got this.
But then during the topside orientation the perky ranger holds up her hat. “And then near the end of the tour, you’ll crawl through the tunnel.”
What the what? Tunnel? Nobody said anything about a tunnel. There were no signs at the visitor’s center about crawling through a freaking tunnel.
“The tunnel is as wide as my hat. It’s 12 feet long and gets wider in the middle, then narrows back down to 18 inches. I want you to understand that once you put your foot on the tall ladder and start to ascend, there’s no going back. We all go up and out through the tunnel.”
Oh, baloney. No way the ADA would let that fly in a national park. There’s got to be a handicap by-pass or something.
A tall dude raises his hand. “Why not?”
Ranger Perky chirps, “It’s not safe to go backward. You have to go forward. There really is no going back.” She waves her hat around. “Don’t worry. Everyone here can fit. Trust me. Things squish—you just have to make them.”
Oh, no. Obviously, as an anorexic park ranger she’s never wrestled her lumps and bumps into spanx shapewear. Trust me. Things definitely do NOT compress or squish as much as everyone hopes. Doesn’t she know that in the olden days women wore corsets to get an 18 inch waist?
My corset days were looong in the rearview.
“Let’s go!” she says.
“I’m out,” says Tall Guy. “I’ll wait here.”
I open my mouth and turn to my husband.
He just looks at me and shrugs his shoulders.
I close my mouth and look around.
Seriously, who’s wider than me? I can’t be the only chunky monkey on this tour. That guy? Am I bigger than that guy? I mean around the middle. He looks one can shy of a keg. Anybody else? Not her. She’s smaller than me. Her, too. Him, him, her—all shopping the plus section, but smaller than me. Oh, no. Am I really the biggest person here? Did the ranger see me when she said everyone could fit through her hat? There’re a lot of people here, and I was standing way in the back. What happened to all the geriatric people I saw at the visitor’s center? Where are the folks with the walkers and canes? Why does everyone here look like a triathlete?
I bite my lip.
I say to my teen daughter, “I don’t think I can fit through an 18 inch hole.”
She pats my shoulder. “Mom, she said everyone could fit. Besides, that guy over there is bigger than you. Just go after him.”
I eye Keg Dude. Maybe he’s fatter, maybe not.
He’s oddly unconcerned.
Of course. He’s a dude.
He pulls a granola bar out of his pocket and starts munching.
He sees me watching him and waves. “The ranger said no food on the trail, so I’m eating this now. Don’t want to attract scavengers to the archeological site.”
Perhaps this info should make me feel better, but all it really does is make me afraid that he and I are both in denial. The whole tour is supposed to be an hour. Who carries snacks for an hour hike?
As we head down the trail, I whisper to my friend, “I’m not sure I can do this.” She’s known me from college, from before the kids and late night ice cream runs, when my skinny jeans were truly skinny and my waist was the same circumference as my current thigh.
She pats my arm. “We can do hard things.”
She’s thinking I’m afraid of the ladder and heights. Yes, we can do hard things, but not impossible things. Camels and eyes of needles come to mind.
We start down the 100 stairs. Desert heat radiates off the metal bolted into the side of the cliff. The stair edges are slick with wear, and I hold the rail in a sweaty death grip, certain that I’ll slip and bounce down the cliff.
On second thought, that would solve a lot of things. I consider loosening my grip, but then I imagine myself in a broken heap of blood and bones at the bottom and realize I’d probably chip my teeth on the way down and would have to go to the dentist.
I hate the dentist.
I hold a little tighter and creep down a little slower.
After lulling me with a gentle walk, eventually we turn a corner and come face to face with the 32’ ladder, the point of no return.
I glance at my friend. “We can do hard things,” she says again.
Yes, we can. We can bear children. We can sit through hours of piano recitals, soccer games, and debate tournaments and finish science fair projects at 3 am. We can cook Thanksgiving for 60 people and figure out what to get our MILs for Mother’s Day.
We tell our daughters to face their fears. I glance at mine with her long limbs and athlete’s grace. Will she ever listen to me again if I chicken out?
A small part of my brain recognizes the brilliance of this strategy. I’m so freaked out about the tunnel that climbing a ladder is no big deal.
At the top, there are a few more turns, and then a narrow passageway I squeeze through to get to the first big room. It’s dark. I can’t see with my sunglasses. I suck it in to get around the last bit.
I made it through the tunnel!
Except it’s not the tunnel. Apparently, the tunnel is much smaller and farther along the trail.
The Ranger is nattering on about kivas and rain water, but all I’m thinking about is the evening news where the lead story tonight will be about the daring rescue attempt to pull a wide load out of a narrow shaft.
Rescuers knock down a 1200 year old wall. Pueblo people weep at another westerner’s desecration of their ancestral homeland.
Helicopters and cranes are involved.
Conservationists cry that the cost to historic antiquities is too high, so they advocate simply cementing me in place.
Environmentalists claim that leaving my body to rot will pollute the natural eco-system and cause an explosion in the rat and insect population. They advocate removing me in pieces.
Exercise gurus stand at the entrance and shout at me to do isometrics until the bacon grease and butter finally melts off my derriere and they slid me out like birthing the world’s biggest baby.
Stuck in the tunnel there is nowhere to pee. For days.
I’m encased in a tight tunnel, underground, buried in a grave.
In the dark with the spiders, worms, and rats.
This is much, much worse than hauling myself up a freakishly tall and rickety wooden ladder.
Don’t ask me what Ranger Perky says about the ruins or history or culture. I don’t hear anything except the sighs of everyone about to be inconvenienced by my chocolate-loving body. Small children are about to be traumatized. Their therapy bills alone are going to break the bank.
I’m puffing hard before we even get there.
At the tunnel, I realize it’s a bunny-sized hole in a man-made wall. My friend who weighs what she did in high school, nonchalantly stops, drops, and slithers in.
I feel my daughter press against my back.
I can’t see Keg Dude. Did he climb the ladder? Is he even here or did he wisely chicken out?
I don’t know.
Prescription sunglasses—on or off? Too dark to see with them, too blind without them. Screw it. I leave them on. No place to put them that won’t get squished. On my face is the safest bet.
I bend down and firmly banish a nightmare memory of the last time I tried on spanx.
With my friend in front, I figure I can grab her ankle and use pressure to communicate through Morse code that things are not right. I’m pretty sure three long squeezes, three short squeezes, and three long squeezes are S.O.S. Like Lassie, she’ll go for help—after all her family is still behind me, trapped on the other side of the tunnel from hell. She’ll be motivated to work hard to see them again.
Maybe they’ll get a helicopter ride. They’d like that.
I’m grateful my daughter’s behind me. She won’t be afraid to shove, pinch, or push whatever gets stuck. She won’t be dainty. She’s an uber fit jockette with a teenager’s natural abhorrence of both public humiliation and her parents.
If I were Catholic, I’d cross myself and say a final Hail Mary. Instead I console myself with the famous Hawaiian chant, no make A, no make A. No matter what. No. Make. A.
I wiggle through the first part and almost weep with joy to discover how open the middle section is.
Behind me my daughter shrieks. “Oh, gross! Somebody spit in the tunnel! Mom! Watch where you’re going!”
“I don’t care,” I say. “I’m wearing my sunglasses. I can’t see in the dark.”
“Did you crawl right through it? I bet you did!”
The only thought I have is to wonder how much spit reduces friction.
I see the light ahead. The opening at the end is narrower than what I’ve already slithered through. I try not to think of corks and bottles. I fight the urge to try to swing my legs around so I can go out feet first—there’s no way I can do that. I have a quick flash of being stuck and folded like a taco. It’s not pretty.
My knee grinds on a stone. I feel skin tear and blood wells. I twist my shoulders and finally go for the least graceful but quickest exit I can do.
As I plop out onto the ground, my friend looks at me with the oddest expression on her face. I stumble to my feet.
My daughter pops out behind me. “See, Mom, told you you’d fit.”
I’m breathing hard, much harder than I should for such a little thing.
Later, safely in the parking lot, my husband of thirty years hugs me. “That was rough. I didn’t want to say anything, but I know that hike hit all of your buttons.”
Oh, yeah. Heights. Climbing. Underground. Small spaces. Tight spaces. Darkness. Fear of public humiliation. Shame for a once athlete’s now lack of physical fitness.
We can do hard things.
This is the part of a story where the heroine sees the error of her ways, knows she can accomplish great things, and decides to change her life by going on an exercise and diet program. The story ends with her successfully running a marathon in the fall and dedicating her life to rehabilitating adult couch potatoes and enforcing ADA rules at national parks.
But sadly, this isn’t fiction, at least not today.
Pass me the remote.
And the chips.
Turn up the AC. Mama needs a nap.